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Illustration of Christine Day, chief executive officer of Lululemon Athletica Inc. (ANTHONY JENKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Illustration of Christine Day, chief executive officer of Lululemon Athletica Inc. (ANTHONY JENKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

THE LUNCH

Lululemon's Christine Day: In sweaty pursuit of innovation Add to ...

Now, as she plows ahead with global expansion in an increasingly crowded field, Ms. Day is feeling the heat to keep producing $100 yoga pants that are technically advanced enough to fight off low-cost copycat rivals, while responding to shareholders’ escalating financial expectations, and overseeing her brand of “entrepreneurial capitalism.” It’s about building a company that can grow fast while remaining nimble.

When Ms. Day arrived at Lululemon in early 2008, it was suffering not only from growing pains – keeping shelves stocked to keep up with high demand for its products – but also from Mr. Meers’ top-down management style, Mr. Wilson says.

Mr. Meers, a retired CEO of Reebok International, was hired in late 2005 to give Lululemon more structure. But because of his “big testosterone-type of male” personality, he failed to mesh with Lululemon’s culture of “co-operation and empowerment,” resulting in “a culture clash within the upper echelons of the company,” Mr. Wilson says.

Ms. Day says that after Mr. Meers left, it was hard for Mr. Wilson to trust that another CEO would get the results he was looking for. “I’ve had to really carve my own space and he’s had to be willing to let go. But I think it’s been a far more graceful transition than a lot of companies go through with founders, and in large part that’s because of him and in large part it’s because of me and my commitment to creating companies based on the same values that he has.”

They saw eye to eye on their first meeting, set up by a mutual friend and member of the Lululemon board of directors who had done consulting for Starbucks. Both were passionate about entrepreneurial capitalism. At Lululemon, it meant elevating an athletic wear retailer to a purveyor of healthy living; at Starbucks, it was transforming pricey cafés into go-to meeting places.

At the time of Ms. Day’s appointment as CEO, Mr. Wilson said he wanted a woman to head the company. Today, however, he says he was looking for someone that fit with Luluemon’s culture and “it was a bonus that she was a woman.”

Ms. Day, 50, has made key decisions through her career that helped her land in that top spot. Her first job was in financial services, marketing private placement offerings to wealthy investors in the early eighties. In 1986, she helped businessman Howard Schultz do his own offering for a start-up coffee company and she subsequently became its third employee. Eventually, it acquired the then-fledgling Starbucks and, as she says, she put her future in the hands of a man who “believed people would spend $2.50 for a cup of coffee when you could get drip coffee at 7-Eleven for 50 cents.”

After having helped Starbucks expand globally, and headed its Asia-Pacific division, she reached a peak, but realized she couldn’t go further and replace Mr. Schultz as CEO.

“I would have been unhappy with myself if I had not pushed it to the next level but I couldn’t do it there and I knew that.” She took a sabbatical in 2007 to spend time with her three children, now 13, 24 and 26, and husband Pat.

His career decisions helped her climb the ladder. He left his senior job at Boeing after 20 years to stay home with their youngest, Connor, after he was born and she had taken a six-month leave. “He wanted to do something else because I think he saw how much I loved what I was doing and he didn’t love what he was doing,” she says. He subsequently bought a boat dealership, which he sold when she decided to join Lululemon.

Ms. Day makes a point of visiting stores, a key part of her collaborative style. Just a few weeks ago, when she visited the Whistler shop, she got an earful. Her staff had been bombarded with complaints about a new $52 lightweight tank top which replaced the same top in a heavier weight fabric, making customers feel as if they were paying a premium for a lesser product.

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Follow on Twitter: @MarinaStrauss

 
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